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Magic: How does it work? The Science Behind 'Now You See Me'

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Jun 9, 2021, 2:55 PM EDT

You’ve probably heard the story of the time David Copperfield used sleight of hand to avoid being robbed. It’s the sort of story which feels ripped from a movie, using magic to avoid becoming the victim of a crime. Hollywood, however, took this concept and flipped it. Now You See Me introduced a crew of magicians working together to pull off a Robin Hood-style heist. Now You See Me 2 (bafflingly not titled Now You Don’t), which celebrates its fifth anniversary this week, sees the team returning to their life of altruistic crime.

Movies employ magic of a kind, utilizing clever camera angles and technology to manipulate our perceptions and feelings. Stage or street magic, though, is much more intimate. A performer must successfully manipulate the perceptions of their audience, taking advantage of the way the brain works, without the benefit of a second take.

What exactly is going on in the brain when you see a magic trick?

ESCAPE ARTISTS

Escapology, the name given to the art of escaping from ropes, handcuffs, shackles, straightjackets, or other restraints, has been practiced for a long time as part of other acts. But it wasn’t until Harry Houdini came along that it began being recognized as a form of performance all its own. Houdini built his prowess as an escape artist on a foundation of real skill. He had a longstanding fascination with handcuffs and a robust understanding of how they worked. Many of his escapes employed no real trick to speak of, no hidden key or subterfuge, instead employing a lifetime of acquired knowledge. Of his escapes, Houdini said, “My brain is the key that sets me free.”

Some handcuffs, for example, could be released by applying force against a hard object or looping a shoestring around the release mechanism. If force or skill wasn’t enough, Houdini might hide a key or strategically place locks higher up his arm such that he could slip out of them.

Eventually, he graduated from handcuffs to ropes and straightjackets. The strategy here usually involved cheating his way into some slack, then using force and strength to wriggle free. The magic of these escapes existed not in the restraints themselves but in the presentation and the minds of audience members.

When we see a person bound by a straightjacket, suspended above a city street, our brains and activate mirror neurons. It’s the same process that makes you salivate when someone else eats something delicious looking, or mime facial expression described in a book. We mirror the actions and feelings of those we observe or even only imagine. When audiences saw Houdini bound, they couldn’t help but imagine themselves as bound, too. And the sense that we, as viewers, couldn’t possibly escape only makes it more impressive when the performer does.

MENTALISM

Mentalism exists in a sort of moral gray area within the magic community. There are those who perform the artform honestly, openly acknowledging the artifice of it all, and there are those who pretend their tricks are the result of actual supernatural ability. The official scientific term for the latter practice is "hogwash."

There are a number of strategies to successful mentalism, each of them related to a specific sub-genre of the performance. Mentalism has a wide definition, including the ability to multiply complex numbers or recite digits of pi to a high degree. It also includes claims of psychic ability, object manipulation like spoon bending, and hypnotism. The common theme among all these purported abilities involves some supernatural mental prowess. It’s worth noting that, to date, no single person has exhibited reliable evidence of these abilities in a controlled setting.

James Randi, a stage magician turned professional skeptic, offered up a $1 million prize to anyone who could, under mutually agreed-upon controlled conditions, exhibit evidence of any supernatural ability. This included mentalism. The prize has never been claimed.

It’s true that mentalists can sometimes perform wonderful examples of mental prowess, such as the aforementioned recital of pi from memory or seemingly incalculable math problems, but these aren’t inhuman acts, they can be learned. Moreover, purported psychic abilities rely on tactics like cold reading. And spoon bending can be achieved with a sufficiently flexible or broken spoon. They’re decent tricks, but that’s all they are.

SLEIGHT OF HAND

The most well-known skill in a magician’s tool kit is sleight of hand. It’s needed to "vanish" objects and make them reappear. It’s crucial for pulling off most card tricks. Coupled with misdirection, it’s the process by which a performer makes the viewer look left while the trick happens on the right. It’s also where the really interesting stuff happens, cognitively speaking.

Magicians are, by all accounts, psychologists as much as they are entertainers. While they might not have the robust clinical understanding of neuroscience you’d expect from a doctor or researcher, they do understand how to capture and control your attention.

Humans have two types of attention. Top-down and bottom-up. Top-down relates to intentional acts of attention, it’s the process involved in reading a book or cleaning out the garage. You decide you’re going to focus your attention on something, and then you do. Bottom-up attention happens when you are compelled to focus on something, like a loud noise or flashing light. You’re reading a book when the doorbell rings and you’re pulled out of the story. You’ve shifted from top-down to bottom-up.

At any given time, you can really only focus on one thing. Even if you think you’re paying attention to multiple things at once, you aren’t. You’re switching from one to the other. It’s why you can read entire pages of your book without retaining anything, or why you might get distracted on your way to the kitchen and forget why you got up in the first place.

Magicians take advantage of this gap in our cognitive abilities to direct our attention in one direction while pulling off the trick just out of frame. They also rely on our expectations and their ability to subvert them.

When a performer vanishes a coin by pretending to move it from one hand to another, they do so by mimicking the movements we would expect during the real thing. Your brain is hardwired for pattern-seeking. You’ve seen someone pass an object from one hand to another, or from one hand to their pocket, more times than you can remember. When you see those movements again, you expect the outcome you’ve experienced every other time. Even if you know you’re about to be fooled, your brain can’t help but follow the patterns. This is a crucial part of how your brain works. We are surrounded by so much stimuli all the time and our brains have devised a way to pay attention to the information most likely to have a survival benefit.

The sorts of things magicians do, quick changes, especially while other attention-grabbing acts are occurring, don’t often happen in nature, so we just aren’t equipped to notice them. This is known as change blindness, the brain’s ability to capture the forest of a scenario while blocking out the trees.

Experiments show that often we encode information relevant to what we’re doing in the moment without paying attention to all of the minute details. Magic relies on understanding what we’re capable of paying attention to and moving the trick into the gaps. And, at least in Now You See Me's case, that allows for some cool heists.